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What Nick Clegg said in the Commons on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill

February 5, 2017 9:38 PM

Article 50

Nick Clegg, speaking in the House of Commons on 31st January 2017, on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill (video available here):

As this is the formal beginning of a process that will most likely lead to the end of Britain's leading role in the heart of Europe and the European Union-a cause I have espoused and defended all my political life both in opposition and in government-I have to confess that of course I feel sad that we have come to this point, much as I was surprised and saddened, as many people were, by the outcome of the referendum last summer.

That sadness is increasingly mixed with a growing sense of anger at what I consider to be the Government's deliberate distortion of the mandate they received from the British people in a way that I think is divisive, damaging and self-serving.

Let us be clear: the British people gave the Government a mandate to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union. The British people did not give this Government a mandate to threaten to turn our country into some tawdry, low-regulation, low-tax, cowboy economy. The British people did not vote to make themselves poorer by pulling out of the greatest free-trading single market the world has ever seen-incidentally, that is one of the many reasons why the Liberal Democrats believe that the British people should be given a say at the end of the process, much as they were given a say at the beginning. And the British people most certainly did not give a mandate to the Government to indulge in the ludicrous, sycophantic farce that we have seen in recent days in which this Government, having burned every bridge left with our friends in Europe, rushed across the Atlantic to sidle next to a US President without seeming to be aware that his nativism, isolationism and protectionism is diametrically opposed to the long-term strategic interests of the United Kingdom.

[...] The insult was that the Brexit campaigners deliberately withheld from the British people what they meant by Brexit. It was a deliberate, effective but highly cynical tactic. We never received a manifesto with the views of Nigel Farage, the Foreign Secretary or the former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for ​Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), explaining what Brexit means. Therefore, when we finally know what Brexit really means in substance, rather than in utopian promise, of course the British people should have their say.

[...] That is why I believe that this House has not a choice but a duty to withhold from the Government the right to proceed with Brexit in the way they have planned. That would not stop Brexit but would simply urge the Government to go back to the drawing board and to come back to this House with a more sensible and moderate approach to Brexit.

[...] Some people say that there is no alternative, that we must leave the single market and that there is no remote chance that we could find an accommodation with our European partners. Nonsense. For instance, I confirm to the House that I have recently heard on very good authority that senior German decision makers, shortly after the Prime Minister, no doubt to her surprise, found herself as Prime Minister without a shot-or indeed a vote-being fired, were keen to explore ways to deliver her an emergency brake. In return, they hoped for an undisruptive economic Brexit.

But what did this Government choose to do? They decided to spurn all friendship links with Europe. They decided to disregard the needs of Scotland, Northern Ireland and, indeed, our great capital London. They decided to placate parts of the Conservative party rather than serve the long-term strategic interests of this country. They decided to pander to the eye-popping vitriol and bile that we see every day from people like Mr Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, and other members of the moneyed elite who run the Brexit right-wing press in this country-and this Government have become too slavishly preoccupied with their opinions. But, above all, this Government have decided to disregard the hopes, the dreams and the aspirations of 16.1 million of our fellow citizens, which is more than have ever voted for a winning party in a general election- 242 Westminster constituencies voted to remain.

[...] It is a novel concept that the winning side in a competition invokes the arguments of the losing side to make a case that it did not make itself. That is ludicrous. The Brexit campaign deliberately did not spell out to the British people what Brexit means, which is why it is right that, when we finally do know what Brexit means, the British people have another say.

My final point is that the British Government have taken the mandate of 23 June 2016 and not only disregarded the 16.1 million people and the 242 constituencies that voted to remain but have very deliberately decided to ignore the pleas, the dreams, the aspirations and the plans of the people who should actually count most. It is our children and our grandchildren, the youth of Britain, who will have to live with the fateful consequences more than anybody in this House or anybody on the Government Front Bench and-guess what?-conventional wisdom says that the youth of today are politically indifferent and do not participate. Sixty-four per cent. of 18 to 24-year-old voters voted. They mobilised in huge, unprecedented numbers, and 73% of them voted for a different future.

I know that the vote of a 19-year-old does not weigh any differently in the ballot box from the vote of a 90-year-old but, when we search our consciences, as we have just been asked to do, we should search our consciences most especially about what country we think we are handing on to the next generation. Call me old-fashioned, but when a country decides to go on a radical, uncompromising departure to a new and as yet entirely unpredictable future, and does so against the explicit, stated wishes of those who have to inhabit that future, it is a country embarking on a perilous path, and I hope that our consciences will not pay for it.

I have a great sense of foreboding. Notwithstanding my personal admiration for the Secretary of State for Brexit, who will try to conduct his negotiations in good humour, the negotiations are going to get nasty and acrimonious. Just think what will happen in the British tabloid press when the Government first start arguing about money in the next few months. The Government's position is asking for the impossible and the undeliverable. Most especially, it is not possible to say that we will not abide by the rulings of a marketplace and then somehow claim that we will get unfettered access to that marketplace. That is not going to happen.

European leaders, many of whom I have spoken to, look at us with increasing dismay and disbelief at the incoherence and the confrontational manner in which this Government are proceeding with Brexit.

My final plea is that Members look to the long-term interests of our country and their constituents when voting, not to the short-term interests of this Government.

Source: [accessed 05 Feb 2017]